What do you mean when you say respect?

Sean was one of those miracle students. Single-parent household, crime infested neighborhood, apathetic teachers, and he made it into college.  I did not know his backstory, but Sean stood out because of his manners.  He consistently said sir and ma’am, used formal titles, held doors open for people, asked permission, and said excuse me when he got too close or bumped someone in a crowded hallway.  He laughed when I remarked on how respectful he was and said, “Dr. Allen in my neighborhood you show respect or you might get shot.  At college, you show respect and you might get an A!”

I wanted to know if Sean’s respect was real or if he just angling for grades, so I bought him coffee a few times. It was real and so were his grade-A’s, and I learned a lot from Sean.

Respect means different things to different people.  Some believe they can force others to respect them. Others don’t think they’ll ever get any respect. In organizations, we both know people who believe a phone call is more respectful in an e-mail.  Some people believe respecting one’s opinion means simply to hear them out, and for others the opinion must be obeyed to be respected.  Some managers believe respect means never challenging their directives while others are more collaborative.*

At work, wide variances in the practical meaning and application of ethical values, like be respectful or respect others, often cause serious problems.  Organizations that define the meaning of ethical value statements and on-board employees with regard to expected behaviors will solve most of these problems.

Questions for The Ethics Award

  1. What core values, like respect, does your organization list?
  2. How do you define respect?
  3. How consistent is the organizational definition of respect among the people throughout your organization?
  4. What happens when someone is disrespectful in your organization?
  5. What happens when a disrespectful person is also a top performer? 

*Jennifer Deal wrote an excellent article on respect in the Wall Street Journal (13 March 2017) from which I adapted this post.